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Jude in his epistle teaches that while the faith was given to the church by the Apostles, the church through the ages will have to defend that faith over and over again (Jude 3). Paul opposed the legalists, Athanasius opposed Arius, Augustine opposed Pelagius, and Martin Luther opposed Erasmus. These are a few examples of how Christians have contended for the Apostolic faith in history. After the Reformation, one of the greatest challenges to the Apostolic faith arose within the Dutch Reformed Church from a minister and professor named Jacobus Arminius and from his followers.
Arminius (1559–1609) as a boy lost his father in the Dutch revolt against Spain. He was educated through the generosity of the Reformed churches at the new university in Leiden and then continued his studies at Geneva and Basel. At Geneva, Theodore Beza, John Calvin’s successor, was the leading theologian and a great champion of Calvinist teaching. Arminius showed himself to be a bright and clever student. With letters of recommendation from Beza, Arminius returned to the Netherlands and was ordained to the ministry in Amsterdam. He served there as a pastor from 1588 until 1603, when he was appointed to teach theology with two other professors at his alma mater, Leiden. He served there until his death in 1609.
While Arminius experienced some controversy in Geneva and in Amsterdam, no lasting trouble followed him. But concerns about his doctrine grew during his early years in Leiden. These concerns were difficult to evaluate because Arminius published nothing in his lifetime. After his death, a number of writings were found—enough to fill three sizable volumes—but, very unusually for the time, he had not published them. During his life, his theology was judged on the reports of students, and his fellow professors and ministers became more and more concerned. Finally, in 1608, he was required to write out his views—his Declaration of Sentiments—for evaluation by the civil government, which supervised the university. This declaration showed his rejection of a Calvinist doctrine of election. Recent studies of his work have concluded that he was motivated not so much by a desire to assert some human freedom or cooperation in salvation as by a desire to defend the goodness of God against any suggestion that God is a tyrant or the author of sin.
In the years after his death, those who claimed to follow him became more radical in their theologies. They increasingly adopted the views that we think of as “Arminian” or “semi-Pelagian,” teaching a limited effect of sin on human abilities and a measure of human freedom so that man is able to cooperate with or to resist saving grace. They summarized their views in a document that became known as the Remonstrance of 1610. That summary had five points: conditional election, universal atonement, complete depravity, resistible grace, and uncertainty about the perseverance of the saints.
The years from the death of Arminius to the meeting of the Synod of Dort were characterized by growing theological controversy and divisions in the church. The stress on Dutch society became so great that civil war became a real possibility. Only the change of the civil government and the call of the national synod of the Dutch Reformed Church to meet in the port city of Dordrecht prevented that war.
The Dutch Calvinists decided that the synod should be more than simply a national synod. They invited representatives from most of the Reformed churches of Europe to attend and to be full voting members of the synod. The result was the greatest and most ecumenical gathering of Reformed churches ever held. (Lest my Presbyterian friends feel that I am slighting the Westminster Assembly, let me remind them that that assembly was not properly a church gathering but a gathering of theologians to advise the English Parliament.)
The Synod of Dort did its work carefully and thoroughly. It met from mid-November 1618 until late May 1619, first hearing the Arminians and then, when they were uncooperative, reading their writings. The greatest accomplishment of the synod was the preparation of what are known as the Canons of Dort. These canons or rulings of Dort respond to the five points of Arminianism. Strictly speaking, Calvinism does not have only five points; rather, it has the many points that one finds in the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith. Calvinism has five answers to the five errors of Arminianism. The canons respond point by point to the Arminian summary presented in 1610. The synod’s first head (or chapter) is on unconditional election. The second head is on limited atonement. The synod combines the third and fourth heads to show that total depravity is maintained only when the necessity of irresistible grace is taught. The fifth head teaches the perseverance of the saints because of the preserving grace of God.
Each head of doctrine is divided into several positive articles and rejections of specific Arminian errors. The most important decision about how to write these articles was the decision to write them for the people in the churches rather than for professors in the universities. The synod intended its canons to be clear and understandable for all the members of the church. Over the years, one of the problems has been that translations of the canons into English have kept the long sentences that work in Latin but are not clear in English. Even in the older English translations, however, when the reader moves from clause to clause, the meaning is clear.
The synod also wanted to show the catholicity of Reformed Christianity, denying the Arminian charge that the Reformed churches were teaching sectarian novelties. Therefore, each head of doctrine begins with a catholic statement with which Roman Catholics and Lutherans as well as the Reformed would agree. From that initial catholic article, further articles show that the fullness of Reformed teaching follows properly from catholic foundations.
Something of the character of the canons can be experienced in the first head of doctrine (on unconditional election), article 6:
The reality that some people are given faith by God in time, while others are not given faith, proceeds from God’s eternal decree. “He knows all His works from eternity” (Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:11). According to this decree, He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however hard, and inclines them to believe. He also leaves the nonelect according to His just judgment in their wickedness and hardness of heart. This decree most powerfully shows us God’s profound, merciful, yet also just distinction among people equally lost. This decree of election and reprobation is revealed in the Word of God. And although the perverse, impure, and unstable twist it to their own destruction, it gives inexpressible comfort to holy and pious souls. (author’s translation)
In an exemplary way, this article states the doctrine clearly, shows its origin in the Bible, and insists on the comfort that a confidence in the sovereign, saving purpose of God brings to the people of God.
The synod also did other important work that provided for the life and health of the Dutch Reformed Church for centuries to come. The synod appointed a committee to prepare a new Dutch translation of the Bible. This Bible would have the same status and influence in the Dutch-speaking world that the King James Version of the Bible would have in the English-speaking world. This Bible would support the piety and life of Dutch Christians well into the twentieth century.
The synod also reiterated the church’s commitment to the Belgic Confession and established the official text of the confession, since slight variations were found in earlier publications. The synod had been asked to write a new confession of faith that all the Reformed churches of Europe would accept. The synod concluded that it did not have time for such an undertaking, but it did approve the Belgic Confession as an agreeable confession to all the Reformed.
The synod also adopted a church order that provided the rules of procedure for the Dutch churches for centuries to come. The church order described the work of ministers, elders, and deacons as well as the ministry and worship of congregations. It also laid out the work of local consistories (similar to sessions) as well as the work of the broader assemblies of the classes (similar to presbyteries) and synods.
The synod was also asked to make a definitive statement on the doctrine of the Sabbath. The synod again did not have time for a definitive study, but it did prepare a brief statement to help the churches and Christians. The Sabbath, after all, is not just a teaching of the churches but is a crucial part of the piety and life of the churches. The synod called for rest and worship on the Lord’s Day. Beyond its statement, when asked what to do with the traditional evening service if it was poorly attended, the synod advised that the evening service should be held even if only the minster’s family were in attendance. In time, the Dutch Reformed churches became careful in observing the Christian Sabbath, and the two services helped greatly in producing a devout and well-educated laity.
The Synod of Dort did outstanding work that is well worth celebrating four hundred years later. It preserved the true teaching of the Bible on salvation and provided in other ways as well for the well-being of the life of the church. The synod fought the good fight to which Jude calls Christians. The fight did lead to a fracture in the church. A small minority left to form the Remonstrant Brotherhood. But as Jude makes clear, such a division is not the fault of the orthodox but the fault of those who oppose the truth (Jude 19). The great accomplishment of the synod was that it kept, taught, and defended our faith, “our common salvation” (v. 3).